Sunday, 24 October 2010
A Tale of Too Many Cities
But it's not just me. Cassandra Clare has written four so far: City of Bones, City of Ashes, City of Glass and City of Fallen Angels (I'm not sure about the order since I stopped after the first one - Bones, I think.) But John Berendt wrote City of Falling Angels about Venice and Paul Auster's New York trilogy also features a City of Glass.
Confusing, isn't it?
St Augustine wrote City of God so maybe we should blame him.
Anyway, City of Thieves is a very good book and a very good sequel to Castle of Shadows. (It has an equally gorgeous cover, which doesn't reproduce adequately, with gold foil and shiny black birds in full flight against the darkening blue sky.)
At the end of Castle of Shadows, Charlie (Charlotte) has lost her father, found her mother and become Queen of Quale. And she's still only twelve. The new book turns the spotlight more intensely on to Tobias Petch (Toby), Charlie's friend and fellow-adventurer. The two of them thought they had conquered Alistair Windlass, who killed the king, Charlie's father, but turned out to be Toby's own parent.
City of Thieves opens with Toby looking forward to seeing Windlass hanged. And this is just one example of Renner's clear-eyed and uncompromising approach to family. Toby hates his biological father, was horribly beaten by his late stepfather and is horrified by belonging to the Petch family who are all professional thieves. Charlie finds it hard to forgive her mother for her desertion in the first instalment.
But worse complications are to come. Toby's mother helps his father to escape the noose and just when Toby thinks he is going to be able to track the villain down, he is captured by his step-uncle, Zebediah Petch, who wants him to become his apprentice lock-picker, safe-breaker and general burglar.
The sections in which Toby is trained and his will subdued through beatings and other forms of bullying is horribly convincing. And the character of Alistair Windlass - who inevitably comes back into the story - is endlessly fascinating. In Windlass, Renner has created that rare thing in a book for children: a truly morally ambiguous character. He has killed more than once and is limitlessly ambitious (he used to be the country's Prime Minister, after all). But he has some of the qualities of timeless heroes too.
He is as fastidious about his appearance and dress as Diana Wynne Jones' Chrestomanci, as clever in anticipating others' actions as Sherlock Holmes and as ruthless as Che Guevara.
Charlie's mother (the oddly-titled "Dowager Queen" - should be Queen Mother, surely?) is a scientist, a pretty hotshot physicist and chemist, who has accidentally invented a lethal weapon. And it's the plans for that which form the McGuffin of this story - the thing that Windlass must gain at all costs.
But Toby is a bit of a McGuffin himself, wanted equally by Windlass, Zebediah and by Charlie and his other friends at the castle. It's a thrilling read, that keeps you on the edge of your seat till the end but is also full of unexpected aperçus about the nature of monarchy, weapons of mass destruction and political bargaining.
My only beef is that, having put her readers through the wringer, Renner leaves us wanting and waiting for volume three. Please, Orchard Books, tell us it's coming soon! You can even call it City of Something, as long as I can find out what happens to Toby, Charlie and the rest before too long.